Salem and “Dark Tourism”

For a while I’ve been wondering where Salem fits into the academic field of “Dark Tourism”, a term coined by Scottish tourism professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in 1996 and utilized by a succession of authors, operating from a variety of perspectives and within several disciplines, over the past thirty years. There is even an Institute for Dark Tourism Research (at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK), and its director, Philip Stone, has crafted the most succinct definition of a concept-in-progress to date: ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’. While this certainly sounds like October in Salem to me, it could also apply to many heritage tourism sites: Civil War battlefields, World War One cemeteries, concentration camps—much of Dark Tourism literature is concerned with the memorialization of the Holocaust. Certainly one could call a visit to the 9/11 Memorial an expression of Dark Tourism, and maybe even the Fabulous Ruins tour in Detroit. Dark Tourism is about death and suffering, but it can also be about remembrance and awareness.



The abandoned town of Prypiat in Ukraine, now a stop on the Chernobyl tour, ©Getty Images; Charter Street Cemetery in Salem.

Call me cynical, but I don’t think the majority of Salem’s witch businesses or tourists are focused on remembering the names and experiences of Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd and  Elizabeth Howe. They seem to be indulging in a sub-category of Dark Tourism called “Fright Tourism” (which itself seems to be a sub-category of Morbid Tourism–and there are many other sub-categories, such as “grief tourism” and “disaster tourism”–as well as a more academic umbrella term, Thanatourism ) identified by Westfield State geographers Robert S. Bristow and Mirela Newman, in which the authors compare two major Halloween destinations: established Salem and Romania, emerging center of Dracula tourism. They conclude that “the fantasy afforded by Salem or the one proposed in Romania is basically harmless to the visitor, yet may degrade the quality of life for the local population”. While I find no argument with that statement, I’m as focused on historical memory as economic infrastructure in Salem (probably more so) so I’m looking for a more comprehensive, cultural analysis. At this point, I’m not sure that the literature of Dark Tourism is going to satisfy me, but two titles just might: Tiya Miles’ Tales from the Haunted South. Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era and Stone’s and Richard Sharpley’s The Darker Side of Travel: the Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism.

The more I delved into this literature, the more I realized that Gettysburg (rather than Romania!) might be the best comparison for Salem so I would love to hear any insights about the tourism scene there, and I also think it may be all about GHOSTS. A post on the Gettysburg Compiler, a great blog written by the students and staff of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, really resonated with me when I read it a while ago. The author, Susan Johnson, writes about her experience at a Civil War conference panel on Dark Tourism. On the panel was a ghost tour leader in Gettysburg, who tacitly implied that the Park Service’s efforts to portray complex historical interpretations to the public were too mentally exhausting for the average tourist, who, instead of wanting to engage with the big questions of Civil War history, would rather have fun learning about the Civil War through the means of a ghost tour. One of the main points the panel argued was that Dark Tourism was the new way of tourism, a “fun” and “spooky” way for tourists to engage with the past. I left the panel disgusted by the macabre fascination with death and the exploitation of the very real suffering of men and women living from 1861-1865 to sell a few tickets and walk around town at night with a goofily-clad individual holding a lantern and telling ghost stories that usually are not true. Bingo, just substitute 1692.



Looking for some insights into Dark Tourism, “haunted heritage”, and Salem (always Salem!). The travel writer J.W. Ocker lived as one of us last October, so this book should be interesting–it’s just coming out now.

10 responses to “Salem and “Dark Tourism”

  • Michelle

    Absolutely great post! This phenomenon – especially the widespread popularity of the relatively content-free ghost tour – interests me too. You may have already run across this, but a recent episode of the history podcast Backstory featured some discussion of tourism in Gettysburg, particulary its origins in the immediate aftermath of the battle when gawkers flooded in to see what had happened. The story is titled “Bearing Witness to Death and Destruction.” The interviewee is Megan Conrad, and her thesis is also linked there:

    • daseger

      Well of course I missed it and counted on you to provide me with a great link! No really, I do think it’s all about ghosts. We don’t want real history, we want ghost history!

      • Alan Lord

        To be sure, most of the visitors to Salem come to experience the “ghost thing”, but many DO walk away with the added knowledge of Salem’s “extended” history: Hawthorne, the Derby’s, Samuel McIntire, Alexander Graham Bell, and on and on and on. Getting the history right and protecting the sites is of paramount importance. Your post on protecting the Old Burying Point was excellent. Dark Tourism has been around for thousands of years. Heck, look at the mystery of the Egyptian Pyramids. It’s the allure of “Life after death”. And, it’s great for the economy – including book publishing, real estate value, etc., etc.

      • daseger

        It’s true–Dark Tourism definitely goes way back, Alan.

  • Matt

    Great post. When Sarah, our kids and I visited Gettysburg a few years back, we couldn’t help but notice the many Salem parallels: the overreliance on the battle as an economic engine (and the questionable value proposition for those employed therein), the varying quality of historical information (NPS does an excellent job there, including grueling guide certification process), the kitsch. I could go on. I think they do a better job in some ways with the reverence, but it is still sad. Thanatourism! Schooled me again, prof.


    Your constant fan, Matt

    • daseger

      Oh yes, I remember you saying some of this. I am sad to say that I haven’t been to Gettysburg since I was a child; I’ve really got to go back soon as the more I delved into this literature the more the Salem comparisons popped up. I feel like going there today.

  • Brian Bixby

    I first ran into the concept of dark tourism (though not by name) in Kenneth E. Foote’s “Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscape of Violence and Tragedy” (1997). Foote argued that such sites experienced one of four outcomes: commemoration, sanctification (in which the event is not only remembered but honored), obliteration, or rectification (in which the site is reused to have its bad connotations removed). To this we might add “denatured,” which would describe turning Salem,a tragic event, into time to party with witches and other goth characters.

    While in Paris recently, our tribute to dark tourism was to go find the house in which the adventurer/scoundrel Cagliostro lived in the city at the time of the scandalous Affair of the Diamond Necklace. To use Foote’s classification, it has been commemorated with a plaque.

  • helenbreen01

    Hi Donna,

    Great piece with much to think about. I like Brian’s distinctions among commemoration, sanctification, obliteration or rectification.

    To those sites of commemoration, let us add Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy where Allied troops came ashore on D-Day. No question, the town and surrounding communities have created a cottage industry for those (mostly Americans) who visit “the beaches.” Yet, it is done in good taste.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: